Israel Had No Strategy or Endgame for Gaza, and Now It’s Paying the Price

May 16, 2021
It is impossible to know Israel’s ‘endgame’ with Hamas because there was never a ‘start game,’ just circumstances, miscalculations, political miscalculations and forceful retaliations

An explosion lights the sky following an Israeli air strike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip

Alon Pinkas writes in Haaretz, 16 May 2021, “The “tacticalization of strategy” is a term that, while it isn’t uniquely Israeli, captures Israel’s often flawed strategic thinking. It was conceived of by Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of Military Intelligence and for many decades a professor of International Relations and War Studies at the Hebrew University. Used frequently by Harkabi, the term was developed as an explanatory and cautionary concept in his magnum opus, “War and Strategy” (1999).

“Tacticalization of strategy” means that a country is substituting, or conflating, the military-tactical for the political-strategic.In the absence of a clear, coherent and purposeful strategy – whether by choice or due to political constraints – a country is impelled to implement a series of tactical, military and ensuing diplomatic moves. When these prove to be successful, decision-makers delude and mislead themselves into believing they have a strategy, often a brilliant one. We knew what we were doing and it worked, right?

In fact, it didn’t. No strategy means there is no political impetus entering a conflict, and no defined and desirable political outcome exiting it. Furthermore, tactical accomplishments often turn out to be less impactful than how they are marketed. Celebrating a tactical triumph as if it was some strategic stroke of genius is part and parcel of the “tacticalization of strategy.”

If this actually worked, the current Gaza confrontation would not be the fourth in the last nine years. If this worked, we would know by now what Israel’s political objectives are vis-à-vis Hamas, and from there we could have inferred the endgame. Yet there is no endgame because there was never a “Start Game,” just circumstances, miscalculations, political provocations, and the inevitable and justifiable necessity to retaliate forcefully.

Gaza serves as the epitome of Israel’s “tacticalization of strategy.” Until recent years, Israel has never made up its mind what to do with Hamas – a radical Islamist, mentored-by-Iran terror organization that controls Gaza, in Israel’s backyard. The cost-effectiveness of a Gaza incursion to topple Hamas seems too high and politically perilous. Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came up with a formula: Strengthen Hamas and by extension weaken the Palestinian Authority, thus absolving Israel of any need to engage in a political process with the Palestinians on the grounds of “How can you negotiate with Hamas?”

In 2012, 2014, 2018 and now in 2021, Israeli-Hamas operations in Gaza follow an identical pattern and sequence that is a predictable “rinse and repeat” ritual. Hamas, with the help of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the support of Iran, builds a considerable, if unsophisticated, rocket capability. With no “peace process,” or even a semblance of one, and under excruciating economic and demographic burdens, the Gaza cauldron reaches intolerable levels. Simultaneously, Hamas needs to show that it’s strong and stands up to Israel better than the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank. It awaits an opportunity.

When one presents itself – say, Israel’s policies in East Jerusalem and on Temple Mount – Hamas makes a bombastic threat to rain down fire and havoc. Israel immediately “assesses” that Hamas is not interested, nor can afford confrontation, because it is “deterred” and surely understands the profit-loss calculus.

rocket damage at a house in Yehud, near Tel Aviv, on May 12, 2021,

In reality, Hamas is serious, can sustain the loss and is patently undeterred.

Hamas then delivers on the threat and launches several rockets from the Gaza Strip, targeting Israeli population centers. The tendency to analyze Hamas as a political actor in the broader Israeli-Palestinian context often causes people to forget that this is a murderous, vile, extremist terrorist organization, not the Gazan branch of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. This is what Hamas is and this is what it does, regardless of the abject conditions in Gaza.

Israel immediately retaliates, using all advanced means and intelligence at its disposal. Hamas increases the rocket salvos, which forces Israel to gradually escalate the scope and firepower of its operation. The United States initially stands by Israel, supporting “Israel’s right to self-defense” and cautioning “restraint.” This is the Middle East equivalent of the hollow and meaningless “Our thoughts and prayers go out…” after every mass shooting incident in America.

This phase lasts for – almost always – 96 hours. Then the international community, sensitive to the gory footage emerging from Gaza and Israeli cities, reacts. Europe condemns violence, Israel blames Europe, the UN Security Council springs to action with another emergency session, the United States objects to the wording and then vetoes the proposed resolution. After another 48 hours, the U.S. begins to change tone and talk of a “cease-fire” gains momentum. President Joe Biden (twice), Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Robert Menendez, and a letter from 12 House members signed by, among others, Jerry Nadler, Jamie Raskin and Jan Schakowsky, all served this purpose. Then, Egypt, Qatar and whoever else has levers of influence gets involved, and a cease-fire is set in motion, essentially returning to the status quo ante. The final phase highlights the futility of it all: The battle of “Who won?” But when you don’t have a strategy of what to do with Hamas and Gaza, you can’t win. It’s that simple. You may have some impressive tactical achievements, but Hamas will rebuild, because Israel is facilitating and allowing it to do so.

The political psychologists and communications experts explain that this is really a battle over “consciousness” and “win perceptions”; that Israel and Hamas are now searching for a “victory picture” – a decisive win that would indelibly imprint “Victory” in the minds of their people. But here’s the thing: When there is no strategy and the conflict is by definition asymmetrical, there are no decisive victories. In fact, there is nothing but a nasty, bloody preamble to the next round that will follow the exact same script and sequence.

It is a preordained stalemate. When one of the world’s most advanced, sophisticated militaries boasts of having “160 jets in the air” as if this was the Battle Of Britain in 1940 or the Yom Kippur War of 1973, or when the Israeli media reports that the navy destroyed “dozens of Hamas naval targets” as if this was the Battle of Midway, it does not mean that you won. When a terrorist organization launches rockets with the explicit objective of indiscriminately killing civilians, and as a direct result inflicts enormous destruction, despair and death on its own people, how is that a “victory”?

Tactical wins by a far superior power are no substitute for strategy. The issue of Gaza and Hamas requires a strategy, not “Groundhog Day” military operations. The broader issue of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and reality will not be solved by spectacular technologies against tunnels.

Self-defense is an imperative: using your vastly superior power should not be explained or apologized for. But assuming that this is a strategy that benefits Israel is dangerous self-denial. This article is printed in its entirety.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017